The cross. No doctrine is more central to the Christian faith and, yet, more of an offense to our human sensibilities. For the unbeliever, it represents everything that is wrong with Christianity. A wrathful God who must be appeased by the brutal murder of his own son is deserving of contempt not worship; any religion he inspires can’t help but promote violence and bloodshed. Remember the Crusades, the Inquisition, and witch hunts.
Even people inclined to Jesus and his teachings have difficulties with the cross. In his book, Death on a Friday Afternoon, the late Richard John Neuhaus wrote of one person’s halt, just short of the cross:
“I have no doubts about God, and I completely agree with the Church’s moral teachings… I am a little embarrassed to say it, but my problem is with the cross. Why Jesus had to die, this whole business of blood and sacrifice, I just don’t get it. Since the cross is the main symbol of Christianity… I suppose that’s a pretty big problem, right?”
Yes, and it has been ever since Good Friday. As Paul put it, the cross is both foolishness and a stumbling block: foolishness to our intellect and a stumbling block to our faith. The root of our difficulty is our failure to understand what actually happened on Golgotha 2,000 years ago.
God and His Nature
The Bible tells us that God is love. This is no mawkish sentiment. It is an ontological statement about God that is unique to him. But love requires an object, at minimum the fellowship of two. Of all the deities in all the religions throughout time, only the Christian God exists in a co-eternal fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Joined in a perfect union of intimacy and interdependence, the triune Godhead is the source of shalom, a Jewish concept for universal wholeness, peace, harmony, and flourishing.
Philosophy tells us that God is necessary—not that the God of the Bible is necessary, but that a pre-existent, non-contingent being is necessary to avoid the absurdity of infinite regression when peeling back the onion of our origins.
Finally, logic tells us that if A equals B, and A equals C, then B equals C.
Putting these three truths together in a syllogism, we arrive at: if God is love, and God is necessary, then love is necessary. Give that a moment to sink in.
For creation to fulfill its created purpose, it must be infused with love. Yet, as is evident from the shalom deficit in our sin-stained world, universal love is not a present reality. With the fall of Lucifer, and later Adam, the fellowship between creature and Creator was broken, disrupting the harmony of the pre-fall creation.
It is a cosmic-sized problem which the creature, while culpable, is incapable of fixing, lacking the ability, resources, and even knowledge of what to do. The only one up to the task is he “who fills the cosmos.” But how?
It would have been within God’s power to extinguish his handiwork, once spoiled, but it would have been contrary to his nature. He is love, remember, and love is not sparing or exclusive; it is generous, ever expanding its circle of fellowship and intimacy. And because love is necessary, it could be argued, with some justification, that God has been doing just that, namely, creating for all eternity (not just the six days recorded in Genesis), with the Bible being the telling of this creation. But that is a whole other discussion.
Alternatively, as some suggest, God could have forgiven his creatures without penalty or consequence. On the surface, that would have seemed the loving thing to do; in reality, it would have been anything but.
One of our deepest human longings is to know that in the cosmic scheme of things we matter. If, in the final analysis, our choices and actions are inconsequential beyond our fleeting existence, then, by any ultimate measure, we do not matter. On the other hand, if our lives have consequences that spill into eternity, we matter more than we know, immensely more.
For the world to make moral sense and for man to have the dignity of a moral status, wrongs must have consequences, either punishment or restitution. The first is strictly punitive, penalizing the offender for his offense; the second is reparative, restoring that which was lost.
In the case of the fall, God chose the reparative. Instead of punishing untold multitudes for their guilt, he took payment in what the Liturgy of the Eucharist calls a “full, perfect, and sufficient” sacrifice. Since nothing in creation, even taken in its entirety, could fill that bill, restitution had to be made by none other than God himself, in the Second Person of the Trinity.
What Had To Be
This was not a decision made by the Father, executed by the Son, and with the Holy Spirit flitting idly about; it was a plan borne out of the perfect union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, working as One to restore shalom by reconciling man into right relationship with Creator and creation. Considering our human limitations, it could be no other way.
Earthbound man could not ascend to heaven to work out the sin problem with God; like Icarus on his ascent to the sun, he would have been consumed by the blaze of the Presence. Neither could man have known, much less have remedied, the myriad consequences that his rebellion had set in motion.
No, God needed to take the initiative, descending to earth in the humble cloak of humanness to be one of us, experiencing our wants, fears, pains, and temptations without sin, and, eventually, to be crucified at our hands. For we were there.
When Jesus uttered, “It’s finished,” all the transgressions of past, present, and future were paid for in full. It is a deep mystery that has an important and intentional side effect.
Foundation of Trust
On the battlefield, a soldier must trust his commanding officer. But to trust him, really trust him, he must know that his commanding officer knows what it is like to be a soldier: to come under enemy fire, to be gripped with fear, and to be combat-weary; to march for days, who knows where; to be hungry, tired, and homesick; and to have a buddy die in your arms. Only a commander who has walked in a soldier’s boots can know these things. And only one who knows these things can earn a soldier’s trust.
Because of the Incarnation, we know that our Commander knows these things. He is not a deity barking orders from an Olympian hilltop to subjects cowering in terror below. He is an invested God who spent over 30 years on planet Earth, a loving Creator who desires fellowship with his creatures, a welcoming Master who opens his banquet hall for all to enjoy, an involved Father who calls his children near, an indwelling Spirit who teaches and comforts, a Savior, and an elder Brother who leads and intercedes.
The Incarnation gives us reason to trust that God understands our predicament and is ready and able to help us through it. As the author of Hebrews writes:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
At the foot of the cross, we come face-to-face with a decision: will we accept the payment that God has made on our behalf, or reject it?
We are like the prisoner who hears that a friend has offered to pay the fine for his release, who must decide whether to accept his friend’s gift or insist upon earning his release with “good behavior.” The difference is that while the prisoner can earn his freedom, we cannot earn our salvation.
Mercifully and graciously, the Offended has chosen payment over punishment: the sacrifice of One for all, once and for all. It is a gift, plain and simple. We have either to receive it with gratitude, or turn it down in pride.
For some, a gift in which personal merit played no role is an unwelcome affront to self-esteem. For others, it is an awe-inspiring testament to the Word who has stamped them with the word signifying their worth: “Mine.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Crucifixion” painted by Gabriël Metsu in 1660-65.